During No. 4 Florida State's Sept. 5 opener against Miami, Seminoles offensive coordinator Jeff Bowden's advice to quarterback Drew Weatherford went something like this: "Calm down. Don't make a mistake. We're all right."
But as Weatherford has gained confidence during the Seminoles' surprising 5-0 start, Bowden, the youngest son of Florida State Coach Bobby Bowden, has changed his tone with his freshman quarterback.
"It has changed dramatically," Weatherford said this week. "Now it's, 'You've got to make something happen. You've got to make a play! Do something now!' "
Weatherford could have more than a few chances to make big passing plays in tonight's game against Virginia at Scott Stadium. The Cavaliers' secondary has been depleted by injuries, and it ranks 10th in the ACC in pass defense (234.4 yards per game) and 11th in total defense (378.2 yards per game).
Virginia has only three scholarship cornerbacks available after freshman Chris Cook broke his leg during last week's 28-17 loss at Boston College. The Cavaliers are so thin in the secondary that junior Tony Franklin, who moved from cornerback to safety before the season, worked at both positions during practice this week.
Virginia will try to avoid its first three-game losing streak since Coach Al Groh's first season at his alma mater in 2001, when the Cavaliers lost five games in a row and finished 5-7. Virginia hasn't beaten Florida State since a 33-28 upset of the then-No. 2 Seminoles on Nov. 2, 1995, losing nine consecutive games by an average of more than 24 points. The Cavaliers were undefeated when Florida State won, 36-3, last season in Tallahassee.
The Cavaliers haven't beaten an opponent ranked in the top 10 during Groh's five seasons, and with a remaining schedule that includes road games at North Carolina and Miami and home games against Georgia Tech and Virginia Tech, they perhaps need a big victory like never before.
"I've said this before -- I think you make statements with your final record," Groh said, during his news conference in Charlottesville earlier this week. "We've had a couple of evidences in the last few years of teams that beat Miami or Florida State, so everybody claimed it was a statement. Then they lost the next weekend and it was a pretty hollow statement, so what did the statement accomplish? I think it's where you finish in your league standings that determines what kind of statement you make."
Florida State could be well on its way to making quite a statement in the ACC race, as well as the national championship race. After the Seminoles lost 15 games the past four seasons, as many as they lost in the previous 11 seasons combined, they entered this season to mixed expectations.
Junior Wyatt Sexton had Lyme disease diagnosed during the summer, so the Seminoles were forced to start a freshman quarterback, something Bowden has rarely done during his 29 previous seasons at Florida State.
On top of that, not even Bowden thought Weatherford would win the starting job. Freshman Xavier Lee was more highly regarded coming out of Seabreeze High School in Daytona Beach, Fla., had a stronger arm than Weatherford and was more athletic.
"Lee's reputation was probably more heralded than the other guy in the state," Bobby Bowden said. "But Weatherford made the best of it."
Both quarterbacks played poorly in the Seminoles' 10-7 win over the Hurricanes. Weatherford completed only 7 of 24 passes for 67 yards with one interception and was pulled early in the fourth quarter; Lee was 1 for 2 for 7 yards and fumbled a snap after replacing him.
But as poorly as Weatherford played against Miami's speedy defense, Seminoles center David Castillo said he earned the respect of his teammates for keeping his composure and helping the team end a six-game losing streak to the Hurricanes.
"Drew is always his harshest critic," Castillo said. "Out of 80 snaps, he could have 60 good plays and 20 bad plays, and he'd beat himself up about the 20 bad ones. But he got something done that a quarterback hasn't gotten done here in a long time, and that's beat Miami."
Florida State's coaches altered the offense to more of a spread set with four wideouts, allowing Weatherford to take more snaps from the shotgun so he could see the field more easily.
Weatherford responded well to the changes and additional responsibilities, throwing for 342 yards and two touchdowns in a 62-10 blowout of the Citadel in his second start. He was just as impressive in his first road start, a 28-17 win at then-No. 17 Boston College, throwing for 243 yards and two touchdowns, and he threw six touchdowns and ran for two more in victories over Syracuse and Wake Forest the past two weeks.
"I feel like they expect the quarterback at Florida State to do something," Weatherford said. "It hasn't been that way the last couple of years."